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For the week of September 20 through 26, 2000

The Feldenkrais Method

Express Staff Writer

It sounds a bit like a religious cult.

Well, it’s not.

It’s the Feldenkrais Method.

It does, however, have a bit of a cult feeling in that when one begins training in this specialized movement method, one commits to a four-year training process.

To further compound this cult-like sense, Feldenkrais instructors and students isolate themselves for three weeks each September at the Sawtooth Camp, which is associated with the Presbyterian Church. This secluded spot, perfect for meditative learning and hiking, is in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, north of Ketchum.

To become Feldenkrais practitioners, students must complete 800 hours of training, mastering two integral components--"Functional Integration" and "Awareness Through Movement." This later lesson typically begins with the students lying on their backs and softly guided through a body scan to increase awareness of how their body feels and works.

"We are interested in helping people with self actualization," Jeff Haller, the program director, said, as he sat on the steps of the Sawtooth Camp Lodge, where the classes are taught everyday.

It may take another 10 years, the 6-foot-7-inch-tall Haller said, "to get really good at it."

The Seattle-based Haller took the training in the 1970s and became certified in 1983. He was a part of the first "class" of practitioners in the country.

Haller has worked with many athletes, and pointed out that martial arts is the closest relation to Feldenkrais, in that the aim is for the body to always be working efficiently.

The Feldenkrais Method is described as a precise approach to neuromuscular relearning. It’s named after its originator, Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born physicist, the first Western judo black belt, a mechanical engineer and an educator. His method was conceived after he suffered a knee injury. By using gentle movement, according to his ideas, one can improve agility and enhance human functioning.

Feldenkrais adherents contend practitioners can help them to increase their ease and range of motion, increase flexibility, improve coordination and rediscover their innate capacity for graceful, efficient movement.

They take very seriously, for instance, the way a baby moves before its movements have been oppressed, tweaked or otherwise misguided while growing up. ("Don’t climb those steps, Lenny, you’ll fall down and hurt yourself," the protective mother cries out.)

Feldenkrais asks you to regress to the time you were first discovering how to move. Be the baby, roll over, experiment with your body. These are the essential beginning points. Now while no one is asking you to become infantile, they are asking that you to suspend all learned notions.

The practitioners talk or physically guide students through various series of movements. While doing so, they question students to help them determine which postures and movements are natural to their bodies and which have been learned and should perhaps be changed.

What makes this method different from, say Alexander, Pilates or Yoga is the relationship between the practitioner and student (or client). Ultimately, the goal is to remove the practitioner from the composition, leaving the student able to do the work alone, and not dependent on those costly and time-consuming weekly therapy sessions associated with most rehabilitation procedures.

"If you could have your hands disappear as the student moved through the movements, that would be ideal," a local Feldenkrais practitioner, John Vladimiroff, said.

The students at this year’s gathering are a cheery and touchyfeely mixed bag of comrades. Clearly they are comfortable with each other after three years of classes, both here and in Seattle, where several of them live.

The students vary in age, country of origin and gender, and cover a wide range of careers: airline pilot, professional dancer, performance artist, computer wonk, lawyer, author and yogi The four-year-long program costs $14,400.

The program’s two locals include Vladimiroff, who practices at the Sun Valley Athletic Club, The Sacred Cow in Ketchum and at the Blaine County Fitness Center in Hailey. He is also one of four instructors at this session.

Wanda Cole, the other local, is a massage therapist. She’s in her third year of her training in Feldenkrais.

One of the chores students go through, to affirm their self-motivation, is to invite people in town to the Sawtooth Camp for an evening class. They’re sort of a guinea pig, but a really pampered guinea pig, who goes home with good posture.

If this should happen to you, don’t be alarmed. It’s all very amiable and reassuring. Establishing a rapport before beginning any work is very important, say the program’s advocates. Their mode of therapy is very gentle and happens in small incremental motions, designed to integrate the whole body by connecting the spine to all motions in an natural manner.

What separates this from similar forms of education, Haller said, is that in the others, the teacher has an idea of what the student should be or look like.

"Essentially the difference here is the student and the practitioner discover the best way together," he said.

Shaun Bagley, a 50-year-old student from Australia, was a computer executive when he decided he needed a change.

"I wanted to grow old more gracefully," he said. "Instead of trying to do things, find an alternative way which is ultimately more comfortable."

The Feldenkrais Method is "very human," Bagely said.

Not everyone is amenable to such a concept. They want to be told how to work, what posture is correct and how a dance step should look, to be technically correct, instead of organically correct, Haller said.

"It is available to everyone but not everyone is available to it," he said. "It often requires a life crisis, an accident or illness. Often it’s the last resort."

And it’s often associated with people in pain, he said, but healthy athletes, dancers and actors have all found it beneficial to gain that one 100th of a second in the race, or to balance on that toe in exactly the right and most comfortable position.

John Chester is a retired orthopedic surgeon from Salem Ore., and on the teaching staff of Haller’s program. His wife began her Feldenkrais training 20 years ago after every other form of traditional medicine had not helped her bad back.

"I was incredulous," he said, "of what I could sense that she was getting for herself. It piqued my curiosity. I had a need to understand."

He began the training himself and saw, he said, "a change in myself."

Except for those with blatant injuries, Chester said, most of his patients came to him with aches and pains. What he called the "-itises."

"If we used ourselves more efficiently this wouldn’t happen," he said. "[Feldenkrais] shows you what to do."

Chester likened it to the way a dance instructor holds a student and guides him or her around the dance floor while they learn. The student will eventually feel the rightness of the motion and know it innately themselves.

"It’s a dance," he said.


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